STD symptoms aren't as obvious as you might think.

By Korin Miller
April 27, 2021
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If you're sexually active, you're at risk of STDs (or STIs, aka sexually transmitted infections). Even practicing safe sex is no guarantee, since condoms aren't foolproof. And a partner who shows no symptoms could still be infected, and then unknowingly pass the STI on to you.

"Not all cases of every STI are symptomatic," Christine Greves, MD, ob-gyn at the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women & Babies in Orlando, Florida, tells Health. Even when people do develop symptoms, it can be easy to mistake them for another condition, like a yeast infection or urinary tract infection.

So if you're sexually active and something feels off, what you're feeling could be an STI symptom. After all, 1 in 5 people in the US have an STI, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports. So what STI symptoms should you be concerned about? Here are the seven most common.

What are the most common STD symptoms?

STI symptoms tend to overlap, so experiencing any of these could be a red flag. Of course, having one of these symptoms doesn't automatically mean you have an STI, but it raises the possibility.

It burns when you pee

If you feel like you're raining hellfire into the toilet when you go, an STI could be to blame. "This is probably the most common symptom that we see with STIs," Michael Angarone, DO, associate professor in the division of infectious diseases at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, tells Health. Why? The pain comes from inflammation in your urinary tract; bacteria can cling to the mucus membranes of the urethra (the tube pee comes out of), causing this inflammation, Dr. Angarone explains. As a result, "you may get a lot of burning when you urinate and go to the bathroom a lot," he says. STIs like chlamydia, gonorrhea, and trichomoniasis ("trich") can be the root cause.

You have unusual discharge

You know what's normal and not for you in the discharge department. And if things look off down there, it could be due to an STI like trichomoniasis, chlamydia, or gonorrhea. The reason goes back to inflammation; bacteria can cling to your reproductive tract, causing irritation and an unusual discharge, Dr. Angarone says.

You have abnormal vaginal bleeding

Bleeding when it's not that time of the month is a little alarming, and an STI can be to blame. "High-risk HPV could affect the cervix, which can cause bleeding after sex," Dr. Greves says. Inflammation in your reproductive tract can also irritate the mucus membranes of your vagina, Dr. Angarone says, causing bleeding.

Your vagina is burning or itching

Vaginal itching and burning are the telltale signs of a yeast infection—but STIs like gonorrhea and chlamydia can cause those symptoms, too. "The vaginal tissue is just more sensitive if you have an STI," Dr. Greves says. "It becomes inflamed and the normal protective mechanisms may be disrupted."

You have pain during sex

Painful sex is a tip-off that something isn't right. STIs like chlamydia and gonorrhea can result in painful sex because these cause vaginal inflammation, Dr. Greves says. Herpes can also lead to painful intercourse because lesion can form in your vagina and on your cervix, and then become irritated and inflamed during sex. "It can be very painful," she adds.

You have bumps on your genitals

Bumps can be a sign of several STIs, including genital herpes, HPV, syphilis, and molluscum contagiosum. If you develop a bump, sore, or wart, don't write it off—even if it goes away after a few days. Conditions like herpes will have flares that come and go, but you don't actually get rid of the virus when sores aren't visible, Dr. Greves says.

You have pelvic pain

Just like painful sex, pelvic pain is a sign to pay attention to. Chlamydia and gonorrhea are known to cause this symptom. "Gonorrhea or chlamydia can contribute to pelvic pain because they can not only affect the vagina but spread to the uterus and fallopian tubes," Dr. Greves says.

When do STD symptoms start to show?

It really depends. Chlamydia symptoms can show up several weeks after you were infected, according to the CDC. With gonorrhea, it may be between 1-14 days after you were infected, according to the CDC.

For herpes, most people have symptoms between 2-12 days after they were exposed, per the CDC, but a first flareup can happen months and years after you were initially exposed, Dr. Greves says.

Where can STD symptoms appear?

STI symptoms typically show up on the genitals, but you can also get symptoms all over your body, "really, anywhere near and far from the site of infection," Kjersti Aagaard, MD, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Baylor College of Medicine, tells Health. "There are even situations where STIs such as gonorrhea can cause rheumatoid symptoms in the joints; and syphilis can infect the brain to cause symptoms," she says. Herpes, gonorrhea, and chlamydia can also cause a fever and chills, Dr. Greves points out.

When to seek treatment for STDs

If you have signs of an STI, Dr. Aagaard says it's time to get checked out. While your symptoms could be due to something else, they also could be an STI—and you don't want to sit on that.

"As soon as you feel symptoms, pick up the phone and get an appointment," Dr. Greves says.

What can happen if STD symptoms aren't treated

STIs can lead to serious complications, including permanent damage to your reproductive system that can make it difficult for you to get pregnant later on. Chlamydia in particular can also raise your risk of having a potentially fatal ectopic pregnancy, which is a pregnancy that happens outside the uterus.

STIs can also lead to a condition known as pelvic inflammatory disease, a serious infection of reproductive organs such as the uterus and fallopian tubes. And that can cause symptoms like lower abdominal pain, pain and bleeding when you have sex, and an unusual discharge with a bad odor, according to the CDC.

There's also this to consider, per Dr. Angarone: If you don't get your STI diagnosed and treated, you could end up spreading it to others. "The sooner you get it evaluated, the less likely you are to pass it on," he says.

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